Editor’s Note: Looking for more opinions on where we go after the Hanoi summit? Check out all 80 expert takes on where U.S-North Korea relations go next here.
Clouds are gathering over the U.S.-NK relationship after the failed Hanoi summit meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Given the media coverage of North Korea’s re-activation of its missile testing site, there is no doubt that Washington and Pyongyang might fall into new tensions as Kim might shift back to his brinkmanship policy. However, that likeliness does not appears to be pressing unless the United States were to detract immensely from its diplomatic engagement approach to the most reclusive country in the world.
Obviously there was no significant expectation ahead of the Hanoi summit. The international community broadly argues that both leaders would project a moderate progress at best, even if they could reach some agreement. I think that such an argument is quite relevant and realistic. Quite few people would believe that Kim Jong-un would make up his mind to give up his nation’s nuclear weapons. The reason is simple: the nuclear bomb is not just a negotiating chip only for Pyongyang, but the last resort it could rely on for its’ survival and security. Full and irreversible denuclearization will never happen unless Kim’s family control of the DPRK were to be completely replaced—“regime change” might be only case we can put on for full, verifiable and irreversible nuclear abandonment. There is no sign that Kim Jong-un has ultimately changed his father’s legacy—a “salami-slicing” approach in handling international call for its denuclearization.
Compared to his father’s days, the young Kim has a big advantage at hand—his nuclear salami is bigger and longer. It leaves him in a better position to emulate his father to conduct “salami-slicing” in exchange of gains—ending international isolation and lifting sanctions as requested. Therefore, Kim’s offer at the Hanoi summit is to make North Korea’s Nonbyeon nuclear processing site defunct. In return, he urged President Trump to undercut all sanctions posed by the United States. In fact, his offer would certainly be beneath Trump’s appetite. President Trump’s walking away is a big indicator of Kim’s miscalculation.
Yet “walking away” is President Trump’s big push rather than the announcement of his policy failure with North Korea. Washington remains quite positive to adhere to diplomatic engagement, and id allegedly open to the next meeting “under new conditions.” Now the ball is in Kim Jong-un’s court. Will Pyongyang force Washington to reconcile by testing its new space rocket or long-range missile? Obviously it would be a bigger miscalculation in deed as the U.S. has almost all leverages to push for Pyongyang’s reconciliation. Looking at his worsening economic vulnerability, Kim Jong-un has little way to play back its traditional gambit of brinkmanship.
Conclusively, the reactivation of its missile testing site might be a signal of Pyongyang’s growing outrage to Kim’s return with empty hands. As long as the United States persists on diplomatic engagement, however, both will continue down the road for tit-for-tat negotiation. Regarding the White House’s acceptance of a phased plan of North Korean nuclear dismantlement, negotiation could eventually lead to some positive steps, such as selected nuclear facility abolition and even agreed-upon inspection of select locations. Such the process would be capitalized on by both leaders: President Trump would score politically while Kim Jong-un benefits economically.
Zhu Feng is a professor at the Nanjing University in China.